Europe looks to commercialize lunar exploration efforts

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BREMEN, Germany — The European Space Agency is looking to create a more sustainable path for space, starting with growing commercial partnerships in lunar exploration.

A panel discussion titled “Understanding the Evolution towards Commercial Partnerships in the Development of Europe’s Lunar Economy,” at the Space Tech Expo in Bremen, Germany, Nov. 16 got underway just as the recently-launched Artemis 1 mission started its trans-lunar injection burn. 

Bernhard Hufenbach, commercialization and innovation team leader at ESA, said his team has a very simple vision “to extend the economy into space to boost the benefits space exploration delivers.”

“We’re trying to stimulate demand for the services by customers and then either supporting them to deliver the business cases and to try to attract and help industry to attract third party funding… So instead of procuring spacecraft hardware, we are procuring services.”

One of these initiatives centers on setting up services to assist lunar exploration. ESA will buy communications services and fly payloads on Lunar Pathfinder, a small communications satellite that ESA and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) plans to launch in 2024.

The Commercial Lunar Mission Support Services (CLMSS) is planned to deliver vital infrastructure for future moon exploration and, according to ESA, strategically position European capabilities. This and other initiates will need broader work to ensure consistency, adaptability and applicability.

“We need to make sure that the service that we’re providing is compatible. There’s no point having a service from the US and a service from Japan and a service from China or somebody that doesn’t work together,” said Andrew Haslehurst, chief technology officer at SSTL.

“So it’s how we work as a community to make sure we can build on that service together. To provide the long term, sustained growth in exploration.”

ESA is working on its own Argonaut, or European Large Logistics Lander. But prior to this the agency is considering paying for commercial delivery services from small lander providers.

Laura Todd, head of future programs space exploration at Airbus Defence and Space, says the company is looking at sustainability, modularity, scalability and bringing base costs down, and also looking at smaller companies to fill gaps. There are however difficulties ahead.

“We’re in that transition point from the institutional funding, or the government funding, moving into the private funding. And I think another difficulty we have in space exploration is, as we all know, there’s a market there, but we just don’t know when, especially when you look at the lunar economy, when you look at resources,” Todd said.

Bernard Foing, executive director of the International Lunar Exploration Working Group (ILEWG), also noted that knowledge gaps needed to be filled to be able to build a lunar economy.

Hufenbach stated that there are intense incubation programs which are spread all across Europe, as well as ESA’s so-called accelerators. What may be possible could come down to decisions at this week’s ESA Ministerial meeting.

“If you look at all the programs which are present at the ministers meeting, every program has the element which is linked to commercialization supporting startups supporting industry initiative,” Hufenbach stated.

“By commercialization we not only increase the economic footprint of our program, we think we offer more competition, we can accelerate the exploration process. And if it works out, ESA gets more valued for the same investment.”

The ministerial meeting is seen as crucial, in which ESA will ask for a 25% increase over 2019 funding. The panel, in general, agreed on the value of European investment in space going forward.

“I fundamentally believe that it’s only through space exploration, that we are going to advanced technologies that are going to address the current challenges on the earth today,” said Todd.